A few thoughts to jump start your Monday morning.
Michael Sam made first team All-American in 2013, a year in which he led the Southeastern Conference with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It is a year that began with him announcing to his Missouri coaches and teammates that he is gay. On Sunday, Sam’s announcement was made public on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” a decision that is to be applauded for the courage it took to make it, but certainly one that will create plenty of reaction both positive and negative.
Whether you agree or disagree with his decision, at least give Sam his due for going public. That was not an easy choice to make and although it shouldn’t, it is one that could adversely affect his status in the NFL Draft in May. Because team chemistry begins in the locker room in the NFL, you can bet every general manager and head coach will take stock of his roster and determine if adding an openly gay man will disrupt the team. Again, give Sam credit for being up front about his sexual preferences. It would seem that there is far less chance of disruption with someone who is open with something of that nature than with someone who lives a double life.
Sam was already projected as a mid-round choice with some mock drafts placing him as high as the third. He is scheduled to participate in the NFL Combine later this month in Indianapolis, which is almost guaranteed to become a media zoo with this announcement. Will he be able to perform at a high level with all the scouts watching with the constant media scrutiny? If he is distracted and his combine numbers are lower than expected, will the scouts take that into consideration or will it cause his draft stock to slide south?
There is no question that Sam is a talented pass rusher who was a difference-maker for Missouri’s defense in 2013. Just ask Florida left tackle Tyler Moore, who got blown up play after play by Sam last season. If you can put up numbers like he did in the Southeastern Conference, then you should be able to play in the NFL and some general manager is going to take a look at his skill set, see a need that Sam can fulfill and draft accordingly. Sexual preferences have nothing to do with your ability to sack a quarterback or be a good teammate who helps your team to win.
Before his senior season at Missouri, Sam told his coaches and teammates that he was gay. They were so bothered by his presence in the locker room and on the field that the Tigers went 12-2, winning the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HANK AARON
Hank Aaron’s 80th birthday was Friday but the well-deserved celebration will continue throughout the week in Washington. Aaron remains one of the classiest athletes to ever put on a pro uniform. I got to know him through his younger brother Tommie, who was a player coach with the Savannah Braves during my time with the Savannah News-Press in the early 1970s and I became an even bigger fan. He makes my short list for baseball’s greatest players ever and not just for what he did on the field. I am one of those who believe that Aaron should still be considered baseball’s all-time home run king and not Barry Bonds. It goes well beyond the steroid issue. Bonds was a rotten teammate, surly and dislikeable with fans and anyone else that got in his path, and he juiced because he was obsessed with breaking Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. Aaron never lost sight of the fact that he got to make a very fine living playing a kid’s game. He was always respectful to his teammates and to the fans who paid to see him play. He knew Bonds juiced but when Bonds broke his home run record, Aaron made it a point to offer his congratulations. Hank was classy. I would have been obnoxious.
AARON HELPED THE SOUTH THROUGH A TROUBLED TIME
I’ve heard it said many times – and I believe it – that Hank Aaron probably did more to advance civil rights in the south than anyone not named Martin Luther King. King actually had a hand in turning Aaron from an angry man who didn’t want anything to do with the south where he had grown up (Mobile, Alabama) in an era of segregation and discrimination into one who would help turn Atlanta into a world class city. Prior to the Braves, Atlanta didn’t have a professional sports team. Once the Braves arrived Atlanta had its own superstar and he was a black man. A friend of mine who coached youth sports said that within the first year of the Braves arrival, the most popular number for white kids in any sport was Aaron’s #44. That would have been unthinkable just a couple of years before. At Atlanta Stadium, whites and blacks sat side by side and cheered for the same team and the same superstar. Those might seem like subtle changes, but after the Civil Rights era in the south, it was truly a great leap forward. When Atlanta embraced Aaron, Aaron embraced Atlanta and good things happened. Hank Aaron didn’t singlehandedly change the south, but he certainly did his part to make the transition from the old south possible.
AN AARON STORY
When I was the sports editor of the newspaper in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, I used to buy my clothes at Denson’s Men’s Wear, owned by local American Legion baseball coach and former Braves’ minor leaguer Al Denson. Al told the story of his first encounter with Hank Aaron at the Braves minor league training camp at Waycross, Georgia. “I’m playing second base and Aaron takes a pitch to right field. It’s a line drive and I jumped as high as I could … missed catching it or knocking it down by maybe an inch. It was like one of those tee shots you hit in golf where the ball starts low and suddenly starts climbing. I nearly caught the ball but by the time it got to the fence it cleared it by a good 40 feet. I’d never seen anything like it.”
BIG WEEK FOR GATOR HOOPS
Tuesday night, the Gators put their 15-game winning streak and unbeaten SEC record on the line in Knoxville against a Tennessee team that has to score some quality wins if it intends to make the NCAA Tournament in March. Next Saturday the Gators will travel to Lexington to face Kentucky, which rarely loses a game at Rupp Arena and has to make up two games on the Gators to earn at least a piece of the SEC regular season championship. It will be quite an accomplishment if the Gators make it through the week 2-0. If Florida is sitting at 23-2 with a 12-0 SEC record at the end of the week, then you can start to believe all this talk about the Gators as one of four #1 seeds when the NCAA Tournament cranks up. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly do-able.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Fifty years ago Sunday night, Miles Patterson, the pastor at Parkview Baptist Church, announced that his sermon would be cut short intentionally so everyone could get home in time to see “The Beatles” on Ed Sullivan. The next day it seemed like 90% of the boys at Westwood Junior High School were talking about letting their hair grow. A new phrase was coined: “Beatle haircuts.” They look rather normal now, don’t they? Music in America – or anywhere else – has never been the same. Because they really did start a musical revolution, there is no more fitting song for today than “Revolution.”